My Family Recipe

The Nigerian Fried Rice That Turned Me Into My Mother

A reflection on parenting—and the never-ending quest for improvement.

July 25, 2020
Photo by Ty Mecham. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog Prop Stylist: Amanda Widis.

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, writers share the stories of dishes that are meaningful to them and their loved ones.


I am my mother. In every line I speak, no, every word. Every sway of the hips. Every pot of fried rice hurriedly spooned into red Freezinhot coolers with flower motifs, full of blackened pieces of beef—not burnt, just colored by hot oil—and chicken, fried in groundnut oil so the fragrance of freshly roasted peanuts lingers sweet. Every bottle of Limca and Goldspot packed into a yellow Thermocool cooler, and every packet of apple or orange Capri Sonne. Growing up, I thought her ‘wahala’—her penchant for fussing and worrying was too much. I didn’t know what it meant then, to be responsible for children.

I do now.

My parents loved food. My mum was the collector-crafter who brought in recipes and made them heirlooms. Like the prawn cocktail learned from her friends at the Lions Club, which got me top grades in food and nutrition classes, and the fried rice recipe that Auntie E., her chef younger sister taught her. My dad was the explorer, who bought every gadget and device he could find—a popcorn maker, yam pounder, and a rotisserie oven and grill in which he made us sole and lemon on Saturday mornings.

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Top Comment:
“Couldn't get the dish off my mind and just had to find myself making Nigerian Fried Rice days later! So thank you. A really great article. I loved tree top powder as a kid and imagine my joy when I discovered it made a come back in Kenya few years ago. Hope it gets here too!”
— Amaka A.
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Sunday dinner was my mum's great act of love. She always made such a huge effort that you’d assume Mondays were tough on her. I think back to me just a few years ago—when I worked full-time—and how Sundays scared me because 3 p.m. always came too soon, and before you knew it, Monday was upon you. Not my mother, who seemed totally unfazed by it all. There was no angst, no desire to curl up on the couch on Sunday evening bemoaning the last hours of her weekend. If anything, there was excitement for the week that lay ahead.

My brother with a bottle of Limca Photo by Kitchen Butterfly
A Freezinhot enamel cooler Photo by Kitchen Butterfly

Some nights we had Jollof rice, but most times it was Nigerian fried rice. We rarely had plain white rice, which was considered regular fare. Sundays were far from regular—they were special, and made for love.

While my favorite part about Sunday was the food—after church there was brunch or lunch with pounded yam and egusi, or okro, and of course, the fried rice—there were other things to look forward to. Like daddy opening the mirror-lined sideboard full of treasures. You could map the journeys they—my parents—had taken from the odds and ends that stood out: British red and green soda streams, the Dutch Bols ballerina twirling in gin and gold flakes. The best part? Getting our weekly treat of Treetop powder (think Kool-Aid minus the metallic taste) or Treetop cordial, which came in bottles that later inspired the design of the Astro Baby lava lamp.

Sundays were also for playing suwe, a game like hopscotch with chalk boxes and stones for markers. It always seemed like we hadn’t played enough when the call came for siesta. We resisted, but the parents offered us no wiggle room. The truth is, once our heads hit the pillow, we were out. It's funny how our parents knew exactly what we needed, and how convinced we were that they didn’t.

An hour later, we’d be up, refreshed and waiting for the television to come on. In those days, there was no 24-hour TV—no cable, certainly no streaming, and we weren’t sad for it, either. If you turned on the television before 4 p.m., all you’d get was a long, shrill sound and SMPTE color bars. We knew, though, that once programming resumed there’d be ‘Tales by Moonlight,' with 'Aunty' retelling Nigerian folktales.

While my favorite part about Sunday was the food—after church there was brunch or lunch with pounded yam and egusi, or okro, and of course, the fried rice—there were other things to look forward to. Like daddy opening the mirror-lined sideboard full of treasures.

Rice is beloved in Nigeria: Jollof and fried rice are inarguably the favorites. In general, Jollof—less flaky, and not as involved—is more commonly prepared, but there are days when my craving for fried rice with liver and shrimp will not settle until I have cooked a pot.

Nigerian fried rice consists of long-grain, parboiled (converted) rice or (Golden Sella) basmati, cooked in a fragrant yellow stock—thank you, turmeric—redolent with the flavors of warming curry powder and dried thyme, with mixed chopped vegetables folded in. If you wanted to take it up a notch, tiny pink shrimp (or prawns) and cooked, diced liver were the way to go.

Growing up, I would pick out every single vegetable (except the carrots), just like one of my daughters does now. Photo by Kitchen Butterfly

I’m not sure when Nigerian fried rice became a thing, but I’ll bet it walked in the shoes of Chinese fried rice, which is a very popular second in Nigeria.

A 1930s census records exactly four Chinese residents in Nigeria. By the 1950s and 60s, that number had increased to 200, a sign of China's growing investments in Nigeria, one of which was the hospitality industry (many of the hotels built then remain to this day).

In 1971, the Federal Republic of Nigeria and The People's Republic of China established diplomatic relations, and this was possibly the impetus that triggered the rapid spread of Chinese restaurants around the country in the 70s and 80s, from the Golden Crown and Shangri-la in Lagos to Eastern Garden in Port Harcourt, and Jade Garden in Warri where we lived.

That’s the short story of how dishes like sweetcorn soup, sweet and sour sauce, beef in green pepper, spring rolls, butterflied prawns, and fried rice became deeply embedded in Nigerian cuisine.

The similarities between Chinese and Nigerian fried rice, other than the name, are few. Woks are great but they didn’t feature in my mum’s cooking. Her pots did, and in them, she cooked the rice in stock. Stock is what principally defines the flavor of Nigerian fried rice, but also does limit the rice's shelf-life, so leaving it to cool overnight, refrigerated—often recommended for Chinese fried rice—isn’t ideal.

The seasoning is another differentiator: curry powder and dried thyme feature prominently, instead of soy or oyster sauces, sesame oil, or other Chinese condiments. And then there’s the vegetables—carrots, peas, green beans, red onions, sweetcorn, and bell peppers. I’m not sure where the combination of shrimp and iron-rich liver came from, but I know them as the gold standard of Nigerian fried rice.


My mother knows what she wants, and always has. I grew up hearing stories about how she always had her mind set on teaching, then owning her own schools. In the early 80s, she left her job teaching English at a federal government college and put a down payment on a building for Twin Fountain schools, private schools that were birthed in the back of our house with my siblings and I, and our friends, playing and learning together.

As she did all that—built the life she dreamed of—she kept crafting and refining her fried rice.

Each week, there was a new technique added, from par-cooking the rice then adding the meat stock and medley of fresh (never frozen) vegetables; to frying the vegetables first, then the rice, before cooking in a stock; to frying washed, raw rice in oil before adding the stock—a surefire way, she said, to keep the grains firm and separate. Whatever method she chose, two things were certain: she added the chopped bell peppers last so they kept their vibrant color and crunch, and the end result was always sunny yellow rice, a reflection of her joy for cooking.

When the fried rice was ready, we sat down to eat. I would always eat the rice first, picking out every single vegetable (except the carrots), just like one of my daughters does now. As the years passed, I did that less and less till I could eat a whole bowl, vegetables and all. Now, I make Nigerian fried rice for my children, often on Sundays. I use basmati, add a splash of coconut milk, and skip the green beans. They love it when I get it right. And when I don’t, which isn’t as rare as I’d hope, I miss my mum and her cooking—both continents away from us.

Each day, I’m learning. I'm learning that I don't have to resist being like my mother. It can be uplifting and inspiring. I hope my children will want to remember the things I do well, like I do now, and forgive the times I came up short, and love me nonetheless.

Now, I make Nigerian fried rice for my children, often on Sundays. I use basmati, add a splash of coconut milk, and skip the green beans. They love it when I get it right. And when I don’t, which isn’t as rare as I’d hope, I miss my mum and her cooking—both continents away from us.

But yes, I am my mother, in every line and every word, every sway of my hips, every pot of fried rice. With every trip I plan with my sometimes unwilling children, every climb of a rockface, every scream and call to "be careful," "hold the handrail," "don’t run/jump/chase him," "don’t scream/shout/cry." In spite of all my teenage rebellion and vehement denial, I am her.

I see it now and it no longer surprises me—after all, she was one of my earliest teachers. I feel her force in many ways and I suspect that from the very minute I was born, I was of her blood through and through. No one tells you any of this, though...it’s what you discover for yourself. What you live into being.

Got a family recipe you'd like to share? Email [email protected] for a chance to be featured.


See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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    Amaka Achinanya
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    Kristen Miglore
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  • Carol
    Carol
For the first 9 years of my life I hated food and really loved sugar till Wimpy (British Fast Food chain) changed my life! These days, all grown up, I've junked junk food and spend my days and nights on a quest - to find and share the sweet, sweet nectar that's food in The #NewNigerianKitchen! Dreaming, cooking, eating and writing...about and adoring a strong food community that's big and bold enough to embrace the world's diverse cuisines - I'm passionate about celebrating Nigerian cuisine in its entirety. Why do I love food so? It is forgiving. Make a recipe. Have it go bad....but wake up tomorrow and you can have another go at succeeding! Only with food!

32 Comments

Amaka A. August 26, 2020
O! you did it again, didn't you?! Couldn't get the dish off my mind and just had to find myself making Nigerian Fried Rice days later! So thank you. A really great article. I loved tree top powder as a kid and imagine my joy when I discovered it made a come back in Kenya few years ago. Hope it gets here too!
 
Amarachi I. August 25, 2020
I was looking forward to trying out your recipe as I was craving Nigerian Fried rice, but it didn't quite work out :( I followed the exact recipe except I used long grain rice and for some reason, the rice ended up being mostly mushy with some parts of the rice still not done. What could I have done wrong?
 
Kristen M. August 19, 2020
What a beautiful and moving essay, Ozoz. As a new-ish mom, so much of this struck a chord with me, and I loved learning more about your childhood and all the nostalgic signifiers of it.
 
Author Comment
Kitchen B. August 19, 2020
Thank you. So much x
 
tajacarlo August 17, 2020
What a lovely article! You didn't just share a recipe - you shared a culture and a personal memory! I do agree that we need a bit of guidance as to HOW MUCH of the spices to put in - but I am trying this recipe tonight! I have the ingredients - except I have to walk down the street for the shrimp - then I am set! Thanks!
 
Author Comment
Kitchen B. August 19, 2020
I'm sorry x I just updated it with the details - I didn't realise they were missing
 
Carol August 16, 2020
Can you please provide a starting point for the curry powder, dried thyme, black or white pepper and turmeric powder? The recipe says "to taste" but it would be helpful to get your proportions as a reference and starting point.
 
Author Comment
Kitchen B. August 19, 2020
Thank you. I just updated it with starting ratios.
 
Mszee August 16, 2020
I never leave comments, but these lines moved me to tears “ Each day, I’m learning. I'm learning that I don't have to resist being like my mother. It can be uplifting and inspiring. I hope my children will want to remember the things I do well, like I do now, and forgive the times I came up short, and love me nonetheless.”

Thank you for sharing your beautiful words and recipe Kitchen Butterfly! More of this please Food52.
 
ClassySassyFoodGal6 August 16, 2020
Same!! I had to agree. Such a beautiful tribute to your mother. During this difficult time due to COVID19 many ppl out there are unable to be near their loved ones. Pieces like this remind us food can hold such an emotional and nostalgic place in our hearts. Thank you! (PS Plus I can’t wait to try the recipe as well)
 
Author Comment
Kitchen B. August 19, 2020
Thank you so much xxxxxx
 
Author Comment
Kitchen B. August 19, 2020
Thank you xxxxx
 
TinaI August 16, 2020
Thank you for such a lovely article. Warms my heart. The rice sounds delicious too
❤️
 
Author Comment
Kitchen B. August 19, 2020
Thank you xxxx
 
Karen G. August 16, 2020
OMG this is delicious comfort food. I am an ABC( American Born Chinese) so rice is almost in our genes. I love a good Asian style fried rice but I also love the variations on Joloff rice. Now that zucchini, corn, peppers, and tomatoes are in season my wok is rockin to an African beat.
 
Author Comment
Kitchen B. August 19, 2020
Ha ha, that made me laugh. Plus ABC! Good to learn. Dance away please :), dance
 
Corinthian August 5, 2020
I was talking with a friend, two years ago, about how fried rice no longer tastes like the fried rice we ate growing up (we are Nigerian). This tribute and recipe just reminded me what I needed to do. Thanks, Ozoz!
 
Author Comment
Kitchen B. August 16, 2020
❤️❤️❤️
 
Bonniesue July 27, 2020
Beautiful story. My mother really didn’t like cooking or even having me in the kitchen when she cooked, but I love trying new things and sharing them with my adult daughter. This is a recipe we both could make and enjoy.
 
Author Comment
Kitchen B. July 27, 2020
❤️❤️❤️ thank you. I hope you make it someday and enjoy the process with your daughter

 
fazethree July 27, 2020
Great Article, Thanks for sharing.
home textile manufacturer
 
Camille July 26, 2020
Thank you so much for this article, it put me so perfectly into the mind and the heart of a mother. And your photos are so beautiful!
 
Author Comment
Kitchen B. July 27, 2020
Thank you x
 
SticksCool July 26, 2020
It’s such a beautiful article and it took me right back- there is something about liver in fried rice, and cooking the rice in stock before adding it to the fried veggies... As I read the article I could smell the food, picture the coolers and taste the limca (don’t know if they still produce it)! Thanks for this, I am my mother too- even down to ‘I didn’t kill my mother so you can’t come and kill me’ literal translation from Yoruba.
 
Author Comment
Kitchen B. July 27, 2020
Yes, Limca staged a comeback a year or two ago under the Coca-Cola banner.

😂😂😂 and yes o, that Yoruba statement!
 
Wendy July 25, 2020
Thanks KB and Arati,
I will definitely try and let you know how it goes.
BTW, I started following you on Instagram KB.
 
Author Comment
Kitchen B. July 27, 2020
Thanks Wendy x enjoy it
 
Wendy July 25, 2020
A loving tribute and a wonderful article! I am vegetarian so may not try this recipe but loved your story.
 
Arati M. July 25, 2020
Wendy, the prawns and liver are actually optional :)
 
Author Comment
Kitchen B. July 25, 2020
Thank you, Wendy - I appreciate it. You can totally make this too - use veggie stock and mushrooms instead of the liver if you like. Best
 
Arazjae July 25, 2020
This is a very lovely read. But can you really smell roasted peanuts from fried meat? Or back then, it was fresh groundnut oil, say after being expressed from kuli kuli, used for frying?
 
Author Comment
Kitchen B. July 25, 2020
Ha ha - thank you x. I could definitely smell the groundnuts on our meat - which is why it's a strong taste memory for me